If immersing ourselves in challenging situations can boost our growth, what can we learn from running a 350-kilometre ultramarathon? When I raced the Delirious W.E.S.T. 200-miler along the Bibbulman track in Western Australia, I expected to gain new insights. What astonished me was that running for almost 69 hours primarily led to valuable insights applicable in the business world. For anybody who is too time-poor to run for that long, here are my top five lessons for leadership.
Lesson 1: There is always a way to thrive – when we drop our egos
Around 40 hours in to the race, past midnight of the second night without sleep, I doubted that I was ever going to see the finish line. I felt out of my depth. It reminded me of situations I, and probably most of us, come across at times being business leaders. What was holding me back from thriving? Pointing to physical exhaustion would have been an easy, acceptable excuse. Yet, the truth sat deeper: My ego held me in its tight grip. I was constantly evaluating how I was going, comparing my progress to where I felt I should be. Once I let go of the urge to perform well, I started running much more freely and claimed second place. For any of us to thrive, we have to let go of our egos. We can achieve so much more when we stop dragging along excess baggage.
Lesson 2: Self-compassion goes further than toughness
What made the difference was to stop fighting the fight in my own head. The most important shift I made in the entire race was from mental toughness to self-compassion. Pushing through for 40 hours, I felt I had spent, even wasted, all my energy. Against all logic, I tapped into self-compassion and allowed myself to be vulnerable. It was a scary move because it felt like a step towards giving up. Yet, this transformation made all the difference and filled me with new energy. As leaders we talk a lot about transformation but, in reality, often just tinker at the edges. Our biggest challenges invite us to enter unchartered territory. For any of us who want to rise to the occasion, we are asked to have the courage to make profound shifts – starting with our own inner dialogue.
Lesson 3: Resting propels us forward
Taking a rest or slowing down is often seen as being lazy or lacking commitment. Yet, who wants to be in for the long-haul needs to become elite in when to take breaks and how to use them. ‘Productive pauses’ are essential to keep moving forward, whether in business or in extreme races. To my surprise there are few leaders who are good at recharging. If we want to tap into our full potential, we have to have the discipline to fully step out of the activity and switch to ‘rest mode’; no pondering on the past day or dreading what lies ahead. Learn how to use breaks well and you will gain an edge when immersing yourself back in the challenge.
Lesson 4: Draw on a strong team
Strong teams will always outperform individuals. Even a solo sport such as running crazy distances requires a strong team. The value of my support crew went beyond keeping my fluids and food intake up. Most importantly, they had a different perspective – less clouded by the emotional rollercoaster I was experiencing. They picked up when the temperatures climbed into dangerous territory, encouraged me to adapt my race strategy and kept me cool with ice bandanas. If we think we can tap into our inner greatness on our own, we will be on our own. Instead, build high-performing teams around you.
Lesson 5: If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t
Regardless how exhausted we might be, we can learn to become aware of our inner warning signals. We sometimes get that feeling that something isn’t right, but might lack the facts to trust that inner voice. On the third afternoon of running I suddenly came to a stop, narrowly avoiding to step on a stick on the ground. It looked similar, yet slightly different to all other sticks. Investigating it, it proved to be a snake in disguise. Our intuition works much faster than our rational brains are capable of. Learn to trust yourself and you will go much further.
To lift our leadership to another level, none of us needs to run 350 kilometres through snake-infested territory. But the more we embrace our challenges, the quicker we will learn valuable lessons.
Written by Dr. Kay Bretz.